Ethics Commission Concludes Hickenlooper Violated Colorado’s Gift Ban For Public Officials

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John Hickenlooper National Action Network
Seth Wenig/AP Photo
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks during the National Action Network Convention in New York, Friday, April 5, 2019.

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission has concluded John Hickenlooper violated the state’s ban on valuable gifts to public officials twice during his time as governor. However, they dismissed four other trips included in the complaint.

A group run by a former Republican state House Speaker accused Hickenlooper of violating state laws and rules by attending a ritzy conference and traveling on various occasions aboard private planes controlled by wealthy friends.

The commission concluded Hickenlooper crossed the line with a trip on a private plane to the commissioning of a U.S. Navy submarine in Connecticut, as well as when he accepted luxurious meals and other perks during a conference in Italy.

“If we allow this kind of special, privately financed treatment for elected officials, it just kind of accentuates the cynicism (of voters),” said commissioner Bill Leone as voting began Friday afternoon.

The decisions came on the second day of the hearing, which included a reluctant appearance by Hickenlooper himself. Now a U.S. Senate candidate, he answered questions from attorneys and commission members for three hours. The hearing was held via video conferencing software.

The penalty for violations is twice the value of the gift received, according to former commission director Jane Feldman. The commission plans to meet next Friday afternoon to determine that amount. They’ll also consider whether to penalize Hickenlooper for skipping the first day of the hearing in defiance of a subpoena.

Hickenlooper’s campaign said the allegations were “political smears" driven by Republicans. They pointed out that the original complaint included numerous allegations, many of which were dismissed.

"Governor Hickenlooper spoke today about how he followed the guidelines in his travel to bring business to Colorado, which went from 40th in job creation to No. 1 in the country while he was governor. We fully expect the special interests who’ve exploited this process to continue to mislead Coloradans with negative attacks because they know John Hickenlooper will be an independent voice in the U.S. Senate," wrote spokesperson Melissa Miller.

The state Republican Party said that Hickenlooper was "held accountable," and that Coloradans "should think twice before voting for a man found guilty of several ethics abuses," as spokesperson Joe Jackson wrote. The commission found two violations.

The proceedings featured extensive legal arguments about Amendment 41 of the state’s constitution, which says that public officials generally can’t accept valuable gifts. The central question was whether the trips fell under two exemptions: gifts from close friends on special occasions, and trips in which the governor is acting as an official representative of the state.

Suzanne Staiert, a former state official and Republican political candidate, questioned Hickenlooper on behalf of the group that filed the complaint. She successfully attacked the Hickenlooper team’s use of an “ex officio” clause to defend his trip to the commissioning of the U.S.S. Colorado. Hickenlooper flew on a plane owned by the homebuilder MDC Holdings and attended events funded by the company.

Commission chair Elizabeth Espinosa Krupa said that the trip should be allowed because it was an official state duty.

“The governor was representing the state at a public event,” Krupa said.

But other commissioners disagreed, voting 4-1 to find he committed that violation.

“What was given to the governor, in this case, was far beyond what was necessary,” Leone said.

He argued that excusing Hickenlooper would allow public officials to accept lavish treatment simply because they are public officials. Hickenlooper denied that there was any suggestion of a quid pro quo. He said he had never talked to MDC chairman Larry Mizel about the housing industry.

The commissioners also unanimously found that Hickenlooper had violated the gift ban with his attendance of the Bilderberg Meetings in Turin, Italy. Hickenlooper had paid $1,500 for travel and lodging, but he also enjoyed luxury accommodations that were far beyond that cost, Staiert argued. She said that he should have realized he was receiving a gift from Fiat Chrysler, the sponsor.

“You didn’t notice that you were getting into a Maserati limousine?” she asked.

Hickenlooper’s team argued that he didn’t intend to or know he might be accepting a gift from the company, arguing that there was no opportunity to pay.

“If you don’t know that you have received something, how in the world can you be responsible for rejecting it?” said Hickenlooper’s attorney, Mark Grueskin.

Later, Commissioner Leone said that ignorance was no excuse.

“I just think it’s part of being an elected official in Colorado that you have to be vigilant when taking these junkets,” Leone said.

On other counts involving personal trips, the commissioners sided with Hickenlooper. They unanimously found that he had not violated the gift ban when he flew aboard a plane controlled by billionaire Ken Tuchman from New Jersey to Colorado.

Taking the flight allowed him to maximize his time on the East Coast, where his wife was having a medical procedure, before returning just in time for the State of the State address. The commissioners found that it was allowed as a gift from a close friend on a personal occasion.

The commission also voted 4-1 that Hickenlooper hadn’t violated the ban on a trip for Kimbal Musk’s wedding. He flew back from Dallas on the restaurateur’s plane after officiating the wedding.

Krupa said that Hickenlooper and Musk were clearly friends and the wedding was a special occasion. The commission had heard no evidence that the Musks were lobbying Hickenlooper at the time, she said.

Leone worried that people could use their personal events as a way to “curry favor and transfer benefits” to public officials, but found there wasn’t a violation. Hickenlooper gave Musk a check for the flight, according to Musk.

One commissioner, Yeulin Willett, said there could be impropriety given the Musk family’s and the state government’s mutual interest in low-emission and zero-emission vehicles.

"What I see is an uncomfortable creep to find more and more friendships, and more and more special occasions,” Willett said.

He noted that the wedding was “quite the social event,” because Val Kilmer was apparently in attendance. 

The commissioners also found no violation in Hickenlooper’s two flights aboard a plane leased by his chief of staff, Patrick Meyers.

Grueskin argued that all the travel in question fit the exemptions, and he said that none of the parties were trying to influence Hickenlooper’s actions in office.

“No suggestion of that has been made. No allegation of that has been made. And certainly no proof of that has been made,” he said. “There’s been no show that the governor has done anything for any of the individuals so named in order to generate a reward.”

In his hearing, Hickenlooper admitted that he’d never sought training on the gift ban, but said that he worked with his team to review any questionable exchanges.

The bigger, thematic battle was about why Hickenlooper was on these planes to begin with. The governor said that he spent much of his time traveling the world as a champion for Colorado’s economy. 

Staiert said he “took private corporate jets to mingle with billionaires and the world elite,” adding: “The fact is, one person’s great deal is another person’s corporate handout.”

The unusual virtual hearing had some moments of levity. Hickenlooper, having missed a question due to background noise, suggested that someone might have been “flushing.” But the proceedings went more smoothly than the first day’s hearing on Thursday.

Hickenlooper tried for days to avoid testifying at the virtual hearing, saying the format was untested and unfair. He defied a subpoena from the commission, and only agreed to come just before a judge ordered him to. The commission held him in contempt and threatened to sanction him, resulting in national headlines.

The commission could punish Hickenlooper with fines. The state has reportedly paid $525 an hour to Grueskin for Hickenlooper’s defense, a practice common in cases against public officials facing complaints in their official capacity.